Snowy Owl Invasion

Long before Harry Potter’s Hedwig, Snowy Owls held a magical allure. Perhaps it’s their startling size (nearly two feet tall), unblinking yellow stare, or Arctic providence, but these circumpolar owls stir excitement among even the most distracted citizenry. Whether Snowy’s decide to head south en masse is based largely on weather conditions and the availability of lemmings, their main food source. Every so often the Northwest experiences what is known as an irruption (a sudden and irregular increase) of Snowy Owls. During such years these tundra-dwellers sometimes stray as far south as Texas and Florida!

In November Snowy Owls were spied around Western Washington in Snohomish County, Ocean Shores, and on the Dungeness Spit. Then on Thanksgiving Day, a West Seattle family had one show up for dinner (though they prefer lemmings, Snowy Owls also eat birds…but none the size of turkeys). Another Snowy recently stared down shoppers from the rooftop of a Renton Target store.  Island birders are searching shorelines expectantly, hoping one will land here next. Unlike their southern cousins, Snowy Owls are mainly diurnal, meaning they are active during the day so it’s easier for people to see them.

Island bird expert Ed Swan recently shared some tips about where to look for Snowy Owls, and how to distinguish them from local owls:

“Good Vashon places to look would be KVI Beach, Pt. Robinson, Lisabeula, and other shoreline areas.  They often perch on large driftwood.  In really big flight years they are sometimes seen on buildings even in downtown Seattle.  The ferry dolphins/piers could be potential perches.

Snowy Owls will not be in the forested areas.  Large white owls in the Island Center Forest, along Shinglemill Creek, and along the wires along the highway are Barred Owls.  Barred Owls can look quite pale in many different lighting conditions and especially so in headlights.  We also have a few Barn Owls which are also mostly white.  Another telling factor is size.  Snowy Owls are even slightly larger than Great Horned Owls which are slightly larger than Barred Owls and much larger than Barn Owls.”

Birder Jesse Ellis of Madison, Wis., created this Google map of recent Snowy sightings. It offers a striking picture of the range of this irruption.

For more information on Snowy Owls, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, where I learned that John James Audubon once watched a Snowy Owl lie in wait at the edge of an ice hole and catch fish with its talons!

If you are going to Vashon’s beaches anytime soon remember to take your camera just in case. And if you happen to see one or more of these beautiful birds on Vashon PLEASE LET US KNOW:

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